BY PETER NOWAK — Comcast Corp., under investigation by U.S. authorities for interfering with the traffic of its internet subscribers, is proposing a "bill of rights and responsibilities" for users of file-sharing technology in an attempt to stave off government regulation.
The company — the largest internet service provider in the United States — promised in February to cease discriminating against certain types of traffic by the end of this year after the Federal Communications Commission held hearings into the company's decision to block file-sharing applications.
File-sharing, which uses peer-to-peer (P2P) technology such as BitTorrent, is popular among internet users for swapping copyrighted works such as movies or music, but it is also emerging as an efficient distribution method for legitimate businesses. The CBC, for example, released an episode of its show Canada's Next Great Prime Minister last month for free over BitTorrent.
The company is now looking to codify "best practices" for ISPs to deal with file-sharing traffic and to clarify what controls users have over the peer-to-peer applications running on their computers. Some of these operate in the background and give users little obvious information on what they're doing or how much bandwidth they're using.
A bill of rights would help all parties — ISPs, content providers and users — agree on acceptable uses of file-sharing and peer-to-peer technology, the company says. It hopes to get various stakeholders together to ratify the bill later this year.
"By having this framework in place, we will help P2P companies, ISPs and content owners find common ground to support consumers who want to use P2P applications to deliver legal content," Tony Werner, Comcast's chief technology officer, said in a statement.
Comcast made the announcement in conjunction with Pando Networks, which makes software that lets users transfer large files such as home videos using P2P technology.
Government intervention feared
The company said it was making the move in order to avoid government intervention in the internet. In February, the U.S. Congress introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008, which would ban discriminatory practices by ISPs.
It's "another example of how we can work with the industry to solve these issues rather than getting the government involved," a Comcast spokesman told The Associated Press.
The announcement garnered immediate support from other industry players.
The Distributed Computing Industry Association — a trade organization that says it has more than 100 members representing P2P and social networking software providers, content rights holders, ISPs and service-and-support companies — backed Comcast's move.
"The DCIA and our member companies and participants in our working groups believe that private-sector initiatives are generally preferable to regulatory measures in such areas that are as technologically complex and fast-moving as this in terms of ongoing innovation," CEO Marty Lafferty said in a statement.
Some consumer groups, however, objected to the move by Comcast. Media watchdog Free Press said there was still a need for government oversight of the internet because Comcast and other service providers could not be trusted to act in the interest of consumers.
"Consumers cannot trust Comcast or any other phone and cable company with the future of the internet. Comcast has thumbed its nose at the existing consumer bill of rights," said Free Press general counsel Marvin Ammori in a statement. "Comcast's announcement is little more than the fox telling the farmer, 'I'll guard the henhouse, you can go home.' And that's all the attention it deserves."
Canada slow to act
In Canada, ISPs including Bell Canada Inc. have admitted to shaping traffic and slowing P2P traffic, but have thus far escaped regulatory scrutiny. However, several groups — including the government's standing committee on Canadian Heritage, the New Democratic Party, the Canadian Association of Internet Providers and the National Union of Public and General Employees — have called on the nation's regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, to curb such interference.
Critics have said Comcast's recent about-face on traffic shaping is the direct result of threatened regulatory intervention by the FCC, and Canadian authorities are well behind in addressing the problem.
"It's textbook," University of Ottawa internet law professor Michael Geist said last month. "Once there's regulatory writing on the wall, there's often a move from some companies to take matters into their own hands and address some of the concern."
The CRTC has said it is reviewing whether it should have jurisdiction over the internet, and expects to make a report in May. Industry Minister Jim Prentice, on the other hand, has indicated that he is against regulating the internet.